Retired Atlanta potter Judi Ayal loves nature. A visit to her crafts-filled home is often followed by a leisurely stroll along a nearby marsh habitat. During the walk, Ayal shares her pleasure in the surrounding foliage and wildlife, so it’s no wonder that her condo is filled with huge plants and lots of animals. Dwelling among the indoor greenery are a herd of elephants, a crocodile, countless hens and roosters, birds, and fantastical Maurice Sendak monsters. The flora are alive; the fauna are not.
Talking about the most numerous species of her menagerie, the fish, Ayal describes pieces in her collection and the people who created the finned creatures on shelves, tables, cubbies and walls. They don’t swim, but are all full of life.
At a Piedmont Park Arts Festival in the 1980s, Ayal was intrigued by Nashville artist Mary Klein’s impressionist fish paintings, and she bought one. Ayal says, “When I saw her fish paintings, I was immediately a fan; then I decided to become a collector.”
Ayal purchased several more pieces of Klein’s fish art, and her living room is now a mini-Mary Klein gallery, dominated by a show-stopping trout-like image, regally displayed over the fireplace. The large-scaled (literally and figuratively) artwork includes a Klein hallmark, a polychrome, hand-crafted wooden frame, an integral part of most of her fish paintings. Ayal’s first Klein purchase was modestly sized and modestly priced; over time, as Ayal became a serious collector, the paintings increased in size, along with the cost.
Another stunning piece of fish art is a massive hand-painted ceramic bowl by Jerry Chappelle, a friend of Ayal’s. The decorative bowl has pride of place on a table in the center of the living room. Ayal tells the AJT, “Jerry and his wife Kathy are prominent Southern potters at Happy Valley Pottery in Watkinsville, Ga. They live on a combination farm and artist commune.”
The Chappelles own a gallery and run popular glassblowing and pottery studios, and frequent visitors, like Judi and her family, often become close friends.
In addition to the sentimental value of the hand-painted bowl, Ayal is aware that a large-sized Chappelle ceramic, with custom glazed fish artwork, is a valuable piece of art pottery. Displayed prominently, it is not off-limits, encouraging people to get close in order to appreciate the skillful handwork.
Speaking of sentimental attachments, Ayal points to a treasure of slight monetary value. The quirky, utilitarian fish-shaped stapler is not handmade like Ayal’s other aquatic denizens, yet it is a favorite. “It’s from my sister Jane,” Ayal explains. “Jane knew I’d get a kick out of it.”
Illinois wood carver S.D. Meadows, another of Ayal’s favorite makers, is a prolific and easily recognizable folk artist. Every Meadows piece, from masks made out of machine parts to tiny carved birds, bears this message: “Created by God through the hand of S.D. Meadows.” Ayal’s collection of Meadows’ water dwellers includes a school of small spotted sardines and a large, wheeled fish toy. Some of Meadows’ brightly painted generic fish float on independent pedestals, while others swim in groups. All are exuberantly decorated and amusing.
“I met Meadows and bought a few of his carved fish at a Slovin Folk [Fest] in the mid-1990s,” Ayal said. She stopped by his booth every year after that, to see what he was working on. “I have a lot of his work. The most unusual piece is a carved fish covered with all kinds of metal hardware.” Ayal is so fond of Meadows’ work, she has given lucky friends and family his playful fish as gifts.
Ayal’s home showcases many artists and craftspeople whose works of paint, clay and wood are examples of great skill and ingenuity. When asked if she would consider selling or trading any of these handmade fish, Ayal answers, “I never ask or try to find out the dollar value of my collection, because I would never sell a single piece.”